for the Blind
by Kathleen Lang
When entering an art
museum the sighted population often takes for granted the ability
to examine, admire, or even be shocked by the abundant variety
of visual images that we encounter. But what about the blind or
visually impaired; are they forever excluded from experiencing
art because of their inability to see?
Museums have come a
long way to accommodate the disabled. Wheelchair access has improved
and many museums offer signing tours for the deaf. But the blind
population cannot see, and therefore must rely upon their other
senses, such as touch, to experience the world around them.
Touching works of arts
however, is strictly prohibited at museums. Move in closer to
any painting or sculpture to take a closer look and you will instantly
arouse the attention of the gallery attendant, who will request
that you move away and do not touch it.
This "no touch" policy
is certainly understandable and necessary to preserve the art
for generations to come. What then, is the solution to the blind
population's visual dilemma? How can they too, experience the
Programs for the Blind or Visually Impaired
Services for the blind
or visually impaired visitors are extremely limited at most museums.
Some museums provide special verbal descriptive tours or offer
assisted listening devices for the visually impaired, but touching
works of art is not part of these programs.
The exception is the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Through "Programs
for Visitors with Disabilities," the museum is committed to
making their programs accessible to all visitors, regardless of
physical limitations. In addition to using Braille labels, large-print
booklets, and verbal imaging tours, there is a collection of objects
that can be touched.
a visitor, explores a sculpture on a Touch Tour given by Richard
Barr, Weekend Education Center Coordinator.
Photo by Francesca Rosenberg.
Courtesy of MoMA
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) also provides programs for the
blind and visually impaired. Similar to the Met, MoMA offers large-print
and Braille descriptive booklets and a touch tour of selected
works of art. The museum also offers art courses, for both children
and adults that enable the blind to learn more about art through
hands-on activities and tactile diagrams. According to the museum
this is the first program of its kind offered at any institution.
Education for the Blind
The traditional approach
to art history courses has been to use a combination of lectures
and slides in order to explain works of art to students. During
a single semester, students will usually see hundreds of slides
that explore many details of painting, sculpture, or architecture.
Slides however, are useless to the blind. In order for the blind
and visually impaired to learn about art, an entirely new teaching
model needed to be created.
Art Education for the
Blind, Inc. is a non-profit organization founded by Elisabeth
Salzhauer Axel in 1987. AEB is committed to making the visual
arts accessible to the blind and visually impaired population
by producing educational programs that utilize multi-sensory methods
such as touch and sound.
How the AEB Program
It has taken nine
years of research, developing and testing for a team of art educators
and developmental psychologists to create an art history-training
program for the blind and visually impaired. The program uses
tactile diagrams, in-depth narratives, and atmospheric sound compositions
to explain many examples of art works; both painting and sculpture
are included in the series.
"Creation of Adam," left, and AEB's tactile representation,
Image Courtesy of AEB, Inc.
Some works of art are
especially complex and therefore these examples must incorporate
several different types of raised patterns in order to fully describe
compositional and stylistic details.
of AEB, Inc.
Contents of the
The planned 22-volume
series will cover a wide range of art: prehistoric to contemporary.
The examples include painting, sculpture, architecture, mosaic,
manuscript illumination, and textiles.
of AEB, Inc.
In September 1999,
three of the first volumes of "Art History Through Touch and Sound"
were released: "Building Blocks of Art," "European Modernism:
1900-1940" and "The Art of Ancient Egypt."
of AEB, Inc.
Perhaps the most intriguing
aspect to this program is how sound is used to express visual
concepts such as perspective, space, and emotion. Sound artist
Lou Gisante has created sensitive compositions to convey these
challenging concepts to blind and visually impaired individuals.
A similar project in
Birmingham, England called "Sound and Touch" has collaborated
with "Art History Through Touch and Sound" by donating their original
recordings made to explain the space and environment of selected
This series is available
to anyone who wishes to purchase it. The AEB is working closely
with organizations such as The National Federation for the Blind,
the American Council for the Blind, and several museums in order
to make the program available to a wider audience.
If you are interested
in making art more available to the blind and visually impaired,
urge your local museum to acquire this extremely worthwhile series.
Only then will the visual arts truly be accessible to everyone,
regardless of their ability to see.
To receive more information
or to donate to the AEB, please contact:
ART EDUCATION FOR THE
160 Mercer Street
New York, NY 10012
Tel: (212) 334-3700